The Covid-19 pandemic has closed campuses across the nation, upending the familiar signposts of residential college life

“At first, the virus came for spring break.

What, it forced students to consider, is a break without end?

Sadly, the virus teaches, it is no break at all. It is, instead, a disturbingly indefinite line — a horizon none can see.

Having taken the full measure of a global pandemic, college leaders across the nation have in recent days told students not to return from their annual bacchanals or service sojourns. What came instead was for many a crushing assignment: Move back in with your parents, and meet your professors online to finish out the academic year.

Whatever comes of the Covid-19 outbreak, which is forcing higher education to reinvent itself on the fly, the virus has already infected some of academe’s cherished traditions and laid waste to the familiar rhythms of the collegiate calendar. Through replication and transmission, the novel coronavirus attacks what was once comfortingly predictable and replaces it with fear and uncertainty.

The virus is uninterested in whether Easter Mass will be held at the University of Scranton, a Jesuit college that, under normal circumstances, would hold Roman Catholic observances twice a day. The virus is not invested in when, if ever, “final exercises” will take place at the University of Virginia, an institution so singularly devoted to its rituals that it has its own name for commencement.

What the virus brings, invisible and everywhere at once, is silence to that which bustles and isolation to that which communes.

It has brought a striking absence to the Scranton campus, where, on a recent afternoon, Father Scott R. Pilarz pondered the cultural and practical damage already underway. He could hear the consequences, he said, in the silence of his apartment, which is attached to a residence hall that just days before had teemed with students.

“It’s almost eerie,” said Pilarz, the university’s president. “It’s so quiet.”

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